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“The Whole Traffic System Needs to be Questioned”

It does matter where (2017-18) is a participatory project created with city residents. It is a performative call for more public space, for more space for urban residents, encouraging them to take up more room and to reinforce the assertion that the city is a space to live in.

Willi Dorner lives and works in Vienna. His internationally touring artistic work include pieces for the stage as well as site specific performances. He also has a great interest in photography, film and visual arts. 

Portrait: ©photo: Eva Kelety

Christophe Bruchansky: In It does matter where, you encourage local residents to reappropriate public space. Why do you feel it is necessary?

Before Covid, city spaces became more and more privatized, a current problem in many cities. We live life in different simulacras of so-called “public spaces”; the truth is that they are privatized and the owners predetermine how we have to behave by installing signs where all the rules of behaviour are listed. And on top of that, you have to consume, which means you need money to take part in outdoor life in a city.

So what has happened in Vienna since the Covid lockdown? The young generation is out on the streets in various places.  They claim the spaces they need by occupying them, and they are right, it is their right to demand free space without consuming. This, for me, is a basic and important right that residents have to claim these days, as it has been taken from them over the years.

More than 10 years ago when I was an artist-in-residence at a university of architecture in the UK, together with a group of young architecture students I investigated where in the city of Nottingham we could sit with our own chairs (we also brought a little coffee table and a rug with us). It was already frustrating back then to see how limited free space is in cities. I picked up the idea again two years ago to encourage people to express their need for more room in cityscapes, as my travels with different projects all over the globe made me realize that when you are not wealthy you cannot afford a proper space to live in. It is important that the city once again becomes a space for living and is not merely a highway or parking lot for cars.

It does matter where Arhus, Sept, 2018 © Willi Dorner/ photo: Lisa Rastl

And then the Covid lockdown brought home the tough reality for many many residents of how small our apartments are, when we are not earning good money. And our streets are also cluttered up with cars. It became so obvious and eventually the authorities realized that people need more room in the cities and started to block off streets – at least in parts – keeping them free from traffic.  They renamed the streets “meeting zones”. But residents were still only allowed to move between cars!? There was no visible difference from the situation before.

Large parts of the streets were still occupied by machines! This is just not working for me anymore. The city has to give back living space to the residents and ban cars from the city.

In the project I produce tableaus to sharpen people’s awareness of the situation we live in. I photograph and disseminate them through different media channels.

Sitting on a chair in the middle of a street feels like a transgression. Are streets not supposed to promote mobility? Is there anything wrong with mobility?

These days it is a transgression when you sit on the street. It is not allowed, except when you get permission. But over the years more and more land in the city has been turned into streets, land was used to build carparks and parking lots. All this land got covered by asphalt. Austria is one of the leading countries worldwide in tarmacking the ground.

It does matter where La Strada Festival, Graz, 2020 © Willi Dorner/ photo: Lisa Rastl

We need an appropriate and contemporary mobility concept. The shape and design of the city today is a result of a traffic concept dating back many decades and changing it is always going to be difficult. The same applies to people: changing habits is difficult and takes time.

But in today’s city there are more appropriate and efficient ways of promoting traffic. It could be via different vehicles, like all kinds of bikes and scooters, and it could be with a good public transport in a city; you do not need these vast areas for cars anymore. It should be made difficult for cars to drive into the inner city. The whole traffic system needs to be questioned and changed. The change is already underway, although very often it needs brave politicians to make decisions that are not so popular with car drivers but good for the environment. And in order to be able to enforce such important decisions, you need to adopt an effective and suitable communication policy so that residents will support rather than resist them.

A good example is Paris. When you look at Paris, you can see how much change it is undergoing. Paris already had a massive air pollution problem years ago. I remember, when I worked there in 2014, everybody could use public transport without paying and cars were not allowed over the weekend, because air pollution reached a level that was no longer tolerable. And now you can see in Paris how much can be done in a short time to create a more liveable city. It also needs someone with a strong personality or a popular mayor. A good politician people can trust is essential.

How do you feel about the empty streets seen during the Covid-19 lockdown?

The streets were not really empty, they were blocked and occupied by cars and for me they looked deserted; it was like everybody was gone and they left their cars behind, because they left the city for a better place. It sounds like a sort of dystopia. Or maybe it’s a utopia? Everybody left the city for a better place to live?